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More settled at home, Capitals' Holtby thriving in net

by Corey Masisak /

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby is 25 years old but he's becoming quite familiar with how to work through drama at home during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Holtby missed Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Islanders because a virus swept through his house. Not only was he trying to fight off the illness, he and his wife, Brandi, were trying to shepherd their two young children through it as well.

Holtby is recovered now and will be in goal when the series resumes with Game 5 on Thursday at Verizon Center in Washington (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, MSG+, CSN-DC). The best-of-7 series is tied 2-2.

Three years ago, when Holtby became a sensation during the 2012 playoffs, what he was doing for the Capitals was remarkable because of his lack of experience but also because Brandi was about to give birth to their first child, Benjamin. She traveled from Saskatchewan to Washington near the start of the playoffs, and on May 10, 2012, the day after Game 6 of the second-round series against the New York Rangers, Benjamin was born.

Belle Holtby followed in May 2014, and the Holtby clan has settled into life in Washington.

"It wasn't a fun week with the sickness. That's why everyone says if you separate family life from hockey you can be successful with both,” Holtby said. "It is pretty crazy how life changes. I've learned a lot more about myself and my faults and what I truly enjoy in life these last few years. It's a great blessing to have because I go home and I've always had trouble getting my mind off hockey and now I don't even have time to think about it. It's helped me perform in my work better and it's helped me enjoy my life away from hockey a lot more."

Around the time Belle was born, Holtby's work left some uncertainty in his life. The Capitals were without a coach and a general manager after missing the playoffs.

After his breakout postseason in 2012 and a solid season in 2012-13, he struggled at times in 2013-14. The coaching staff asked him in the middle of the season to change the way he played, a rare occurrence in the NHL, and he scuffled trying to adjust.

He finished the season strong but lost the starting job and the Capitals traded for Jaroslav Halak, the goalie now at the other end of the ice in the series, before the NHL Trade Deadline.

"It was obviously a frustrating year, a strange year, but one that I learned a lot from," Holtby said. "I learned about what I can be better at, not only as a goalie but as a person. It was one that definitely wasn't from a hockey standpoint but it was one you almost need to go through to get a lot better."

The Capitals replaced GM George McPhee with Brian MacLellan and coach Adam Oates with Barry Trotz in late May, and the organization made it clear they were moving forward with Holtby as the starting goaltender.

A month later, Mitch Korn, who worked with Trotz in Nashville, was hired as Capitals goaltending coach.

“When I was hired I was told Braden Holtby is our goalie," Korn told "I didn't even have a choice, to be honest. There was a minute they thought about Jonas Hiller and it was brought to me and I remember saying, 'No, no, no we can't do that. If you told me Braden Holtby is our guy then Jonas Hiller, for example, is not.'

Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has stopped 99 of 105 shots in three Stanley Cup Playoff games against the New York Islanders.

"My job here was to regain trust, to get him back to being comfortable, to get him where he uses his strength, but to understand the areas he needed to improve and it was a partnership. It was never a dictatorship from Day One. He's a very bright guy. He's a very articulate guy. He doesn't do anything without a purpose. My job was to make him feel comfortable again and confident again. That was the task from the start."

Korn had a strong resume before he came to Washington, and his partnership with Holtby has been a great success. The Capitals got off to a slow start, but as Holtby got stronger so did the team.

Washington finished with 101 points and returned to the postseason. Holtby should end up as one of the top five or six in the Vezina Trophy voting. He was 41-20-10 with a .923 save percentage and nine shutouts in a League-leading 73 games (72 starts).

"For me the turning point was the Chicago game [Nov. 7], when he stopped [38] shots or something like that and won the game, but the goals he gave up were not good goals," Korn said. "They were everything we had been talking about and I think it all just came together there. That's a red-letter day for me this year. I think that game made dramatic changes in him.

"He was ballistic, five full splits a game, reachy, reachy, reachy … all those things lead to inconsistency. Our task together was allow him to do what he does best, and at the same time put skills in place that develop consistency. That's what we worked on. … He uses his body way more now than he uses his limbs. He doesn't venture as far from home base as he used to. He goes back on better lines to the post. He's way more calm and under control. He's done all that. It is real easy to revert back to the way you were but he's taken all of these things and he's got a great learning curve and strong muscle memory and it started to grow. The flower didn't bloom right out of the gate. We were [10-10-4]."

Holtby had a couple of missteps in Game 1 against the Islanders, particularly the first goal by Brock Nelson where an old habit -- he reached for the shot and misjudged it -- popped up, but in two games at Nassau Coliseum he was steady and spectacular. The Capitals were outshot heavily in Game 3 but he kept them in it until Islanders captain John Tavares scored in the opening seconds of overtime.

In Game 4 Holtby helped keep the Capitals afloat despite a parade to the penalty box in the second period. He made 36 saves in a 2-1 overtime win.

"He's got his swagger back," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "When you feel confident you play confident and you play well. He's had tons of opportunity and that's helping. He's able to put things behind him pretty quick and I think that's really important for his success."

Holtby did accrue a heavy workload during the regular season, particularly in the second half. It hasn't been a problem to this point in the playoffs; he's stopped 99 of 105 shots (.943 save percentage).

The virus did give him an unexpected night off, but the Capitals likely will lean on him for as long they keep playing this spring.

"He takes great care of himself," Korn said. "He's not a 25-year-old single guy being a single guy. He's a homebody and he's got two kids and that's a way different place, I think. As he ages would it be too much? Might be. There will be a time when it will be too much. But at this point I don't think it was.

"He got sick and someone commented on how well he's played since he came back. I said, 'We all play better after a vacation. We all do our jobs better after a vacation.' Braden looked at me and said, 'That’s not the type of vacation I want to have.'"


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